I Didn't Expect It--Raw Feelings and Photos from Sierra Leone

I  didn't expect it.  

I didn’t expect the air to burn so hot when it rolled across my face as I stepped off the plane and onto the dark tarmac.

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I didn’t expect the dirt roads to be so red against the gigantic sky.

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I didn’t expect the palms to wave so exotic and the bananas to hang so lush on trees above a ground so littered and scarred.

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I didn’t expect the smell of sweat in every inhale to be a scent that filled my nose not with repulsion but rather with humanity.

I didn’t expect to find unity in hot skin against skin, sweaty palm against palm, for sticky arms hugging shoulders to be our common ground.

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I didn’t expect to ingest so much dust, to thirst so deeply, to be so filthy every night, and yet feel so alive.

I didn’t expect the disparity of hospitality. To be treated as royalty, served chilled sodas and heaping plates of steaming rice and chicken, all while a dozen sets of little eyes gathered on the outskirts to quietly watch every motion of spoon to mouth.

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I didn’t expect the extravagant generosity, gifts given with pure joy from hands who knew hunger to hands who knew no physical need.

I didn’t expect my heart to throb again. I thought I was prepared for the cracked lips, the skinny arms, the protruding bellies, the sheer desperation for a bite of sugar.

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I didn’t expect to feel the helpless ache of love. I thought the years had scarred over and even calloused the cuts Ethiopia left. I thought I could visit and learn and embrace and then come home without the hurt this time. But the callouses are rubbed off and I feel raw again.

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I did’t expect to sit by John and feel at home.

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I didn’t expect to carry the mother-weight of worry, fear over the future of a boy I’ve only seen a total of 3 times, back with me across ocean and continents.

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I didn’t expect the juxtaposition; Ebola signs and barren school rooms and wells that run dry and naked children and so many scars on so many arms and legs, set against the loud singing and clapping and dancing and smiles that fill entire faces and hugs and hard work and hopes for a better tomorrow.

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I didn’t expect to come home so conflicted. To laugh or to cry? To stay present and ache, or to move on and mute the pain? To promise to return and feel it all again next year, even if my only offering is a few days of companionship? Or to spend my money supporting from afar, less dollars on 20 hours of plane travel and more for a college fund and bags of rice?

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I didn’t expect to be writing this from the dark of my closet because I am too restless. Because my house feels too big again, like it did after my last trip to Ethiopia when I couldn’t stand the sight of the two empty chairs at our kitchen table for weeks after my return.

  I didn’t expect to encounter such a tenacity of human sprit in Sierra Leone, to see such persistent optimism from people who’ve known suffering at its worst. Such dedication to their education and studies from students who have so little. John showed me his meticulous biology notes and diagrams, how he’d named every part of a microscope, the steps to preparing wet and dry mount slides, and the details of how an amoeba eats. He’s never even seen an actual microscope, let alone looked through the eyepiece.

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I did’t expect to feel such an urgency that I have to do all I can to change the story for one. A familiar notion, but it hit me with new fervor. One high school degree, one college education, one good lawyer or health care worker or pastor… maybe it could be the difference for a family, a village, a generation?

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I didn’t expect the hope that would fill me when I witnessed this strength of character, how the sum of all my fears about the looming obstacles in his path are still less than the total hopes I have for John's bright future.

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Choose to change the story for one. The impact on a child's life, and yours, will go beyond what you could ever expect!

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Bombali Bana and Lessons from the Piñata

When we arrived in Bombali Bana, they circled up wooden chairs and benches under the shade. A few grinning boys carried out a table to place in the center of the chairs, and we sat with the school headmaster, many of the teachers, the community leader, the head of the School Management Committee (SMC is similar to our PTA), and Mariatu, the child sponsorship coordinator for World Hope here in Sierra Leone.  

Bombala Bana is the location of a pilot project for World Hope, their first school partnership. The vision is that the entire student body in the school will have a sponsor. The funds from the sponsorships will be used to first meet educational needs; school supplies such as books, backpacks, etc, training and a stipend for teachers, improved classrooms and such. It will also provide rice or basic food for families. The funding could then extend to meet broader needs as more sponsors join. Latrines, wells, and other community necessities can be aided by the collective funding.

 

In the partnership, the school must agree to give reports on the teachers’ training, provide an assessment of each child once a year detailing how they are doing in areas of academics, health, family, etc., and ensure that the children are photographed and write a letter to their sponsor twice a year. The vision for this is that there would be a more holistic approach to the needs of the students/school/community, but still provide the encouragement, support, and prayer a personal relationship between a child and his/her sponsor gives. World Hope only wishes to give the school a boost, and after a time the intent is that the school will be in an empowered facility, equipped to thrive independently.

  I realize I’m in the minority here, but I love meetings. Especially when they’re outside under an African sky, and pertaining to things I’m passionate about. It was wonderful to listen to them discuss the partnership, the mutual agreements, the specific roles, and questions about how the program is to run. Angie is such a gracious coordinator. I’ve loved observing how she listens, and then thoughtfully responds. She is here to learn as well as share, and her spirit of camaraderie, of coming along side rather than from a place of superiority, is inspiring. Her passion to equip and empower and maintain long term relationships, all the while giving preference to the leaders here, is something that I love about her, and a general posture of World Hope I am happy to see.

  When the meeting concluded, we told the staff we had some fun activities for the teachers. I suspect they may have qualms the next time Americans visit and want to have some “fun”, as what ensued was slightly less than ideal.

 

 

With the help of a few scrambling boys, we strung a piñata in a tree, borrowed a sash from one of the girls and a stick from the bushes, and taught the kids a silly North American game. It started off well. However, within a few minutes, I realized two problems. 1-our crowd had grown from beyond our attempted controlled size, to a number of roughly 100 sweaty bodies, who were all fully intent on being as close to the action as possible, leaving me in an increasingly shrinking diameter along with the piñata and the stick-wielding kid. 2-African kids can maneuver sticks with ferocity like I’ve never seen.

 

 

I would blindfold and dizzy a child up a bit, and then promptly take to cowering back against the crowd as the stick was whipped from side to side. The bodies behind me were unfazed by my physical contact and only pushed in harder. When the piñata was finally decapitated, there was no waiting for the candy to fall to the ground. In a flash, the colorful donkey was yanked from the tree and thrown beneath a writhing mob of candy-craving children.

 

 

It was not the last mob of the day. At one point Angie disappeared beneath a red dust cloud and a surge of bodies when they saw the silly string appear from her bag. I did my best to hold them at bay, standing in front of a long and deep line that by this time numbered in the hundreds with my hands up sternly and my best military/mom face on. But all at once they surged, and in what Angie describes as a scene from Braveheart, they thundered around and over me and onto her. The teachers stood on the sidelines shouting and waving their sticks, but the stampede had turned feral over hopes of more sugar from the ones who scored a piece, and anger from the ones who had missed out, and there was no authority strong enough to thwart their intentions. The day accumulated enough incidents to warrant a temporarily mission name change to #whibandaid, as the #whijoyspreader efforts took a sharp decline.

 

 

When we later recounted the experience from our different vantage points, and Wesley shared his perspective from behind the camera when the furry broke loose, we laughed until we cried. I washed more dirt off in the shower than I knew a body could hold, and fell asleep laughing. I hope the students felt our love and goodwill, and sensed our great hope for their education and future, even though our expressions were tinged with dysfunction.

 

 

I can’t wait to hear updates from Bombali Bana as the partnership takes root. I think there are great things in store for the school and the staff and students alike, and even the whole village. It was an honor to visit, to receive so many warm welcomes. I certainly learned some valuable lessons about crowd control and careful candy dispersion that will be applied at birthday parties in the future. But what I learned the most, what I am learning more fully every day here, is that though my mission on this trip has been to be a joy-spreader, to represent the love and care and relationship of sponsors to the children being sponsored, I have scattered a few joy seeds and already reaped a 500 percent return. We give these little bits of love and joy imperfectly here and there, and it’s given back to us in tremendous measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over.

  I will say it again and again, I know, but the need is so great, the results are so convincing, and the timing is so good to choose to be a sponsor. Whether for the first time, or to widen your circle and add in another child, I hope you’ll consider choosing one, choosing love for a little person half way around the world this moth of love. World Hope International is the place start.

 

 

If you have questions about our experiences, the school partnership, WHI’s methods/beliefs/priorities, or simply have something about our time in Sierra Leone you’d like to hear more of, would you let me know in the comments? I can’t answer most of them, but I can point you to people who can, and I’m happy to discuss anything that’s on your mind!

  Sending you love and plenty of sunshine and sweat (that I’m not a bit sad about),

 

~C

Meet John

The first thing I noticed about John aside from his familiar shy expression, was the way I could see his heart pounding through his shirt. There had been a misunderstanding about which John we were meeting, (John seems to be a name as well loved in Sierra Leone as it is in the U.S.) so he was given no head’s up that he’d be seeing me. When we arrived at the school, he’d already walked home. A staff member took a motorbike to go get him and bring him back. When he walked up to the school’s porch, his day suddenly went from a regular Tuesday of math exams and after-school chores, to four grinning Americans chattering about meeting his sponsor and receiving a gift and getting a video of him. He blinked and had a mic above his head, two cameras on him, and me hugging him.  

 

He was crazy nervous, and I was too. My first relief was that he spoke English (one of four languages he told me later), so I could communicate with him without an interpreter, but understanding each other’s accents was tedious, and he hardly spoke above a whisper. I gave him his gift and he put his watch and Ohio State hat on without hesitation. We looked through a photo album, I read him notes from the girls, and showed him a letter he’d sent us years ago. He grinned at his crayon drawings and told me what each was. I asked to see his classroom.

 

 

He took me across the school yard to a building with narrow bench desks and a wall of chalk boards. I asked about the algebra problems on the board. He said it was from today’s exam, and then explained to me how to solve one of them. He lost me at exponents, as has every math teacher I’ve ever had.

 

 

We asked if we could see where he lived. He said it was too far. He didn’t want us walking the distance with our stuff. When we told him we had a vehicle and he could ride along, he agreed. When we arrived, he introduced us to his family members. I gawked at the trees in his back yard loaded with bananas, and he grinned and told me they weren’t ready to eat yet. He was relaxing, but each word was still so quiet.

 

 

I asked if I could see his room, the place he spent his time. It was in a separate building. On the walk over I asked about his siblings, their names and ages, how they were doing. “Fine. Thanks be to God” he replied. The standard Krio answer, but it still catches my breath, especially considering the horrors the country has faced the past 2 years. Then he asked me a question. “What?” I asked softly, desperately hoping not to annoy him with my endless requests for him to repeat himself. Between adjusting my ears to a new accent, his quiet tone, and the volume of little voices from his village following us, I was trying to catch each word and not having high success. He asked it again. I paused, apologized, and asked him to repeat it once more.

 

“How is Kayla?” he said carefully. I stared for a moment.

 

“Kayla?”

 

“Yes. Your sister.”

 

“Kayla my sister!?” I said, stunned. “How do you know Kayla?”

 

“You sent a photo with her in it.” he said matter of factly.

 

I answered that she was very well and that I was amazed he remembered. He moved on but my brain was stuck repeating “how is Kayla”.

 

 

He told me one of his after-school chores was laundering his clothes, and held up his sparkling white uniform shirt, a startling sight considering the thick red dust. The room he and his brother shared was small. A clothesline ran on either side, for each of them to hang their clothes to dry. The tiny bed was made and the room was orderly and clean. John pointed to a paper tacked above the bed. It was a schedule of his classes. And next to it on the headboard was a notebook. He picked it up and showed me pages of meticulous class notes. “So this is how you are getting such good grades!” I said, looking from the schedule to the literature notes. He gave me a shy grin.

 

 

We went back out and he introduced me to some if his friends. Amos grinned wide, much more outgoing than John, and asked if I could take a photo of them together. I told him I would do my best to send a copy the next time I sent photos to John. Then John called for a boy across the way. “David is my best friend, he said.” David came up and shook my hand. We talked about what the boys liked to do. They talked about soccer, but said they had no ball.

 

 

“How is your family?” I asked David.

 

“Both of my parents are dead”, He answered.

 

"I'm so sorry", I said.

 

“Do you have uncles and aunts? Grandparents?” I asked?

 

“No.”

 

“Do you have a sponsor?”

 

“No. I have no one. No one but John.” He added, and smiled at John.

 

 

I showed John every photo in my phone gallery. His friends and the rest of the village children crowded in to see videos of Landon and Sami in the snow, and to stare at my “very big dog”.

 

 

John went into his room and brought out an album that looked vaguely familiar. It was dirty and ragged. It was photos of us I had sent with a team maybe 6 years ago. “See, Kayla!” he said when he turned to one of her with me.

 

 

When we went back to his room to take a few more photos, I asked if he had anything else he wanted to show me. He picked a Bible that was laying by his bed.

 

 

“My Bible”, he said.

 

“Wonderful!” I said. “Do you have a favorite chapter you like to read?

 

He turned to Psalm 25. “This one.” He answered, and read, “In you, LORD my God, I put my trust. I trust in you…” He carefully read the entire chapter. I can’t yet find the right words for what the day meant to me. To witness the incredible person that he is; courageous through many photos and questions, shy as he was, earnestly dedicated to his education, respectful and generous to his family and friends. To see that even without any prior notice or preparation, he knew me, knew my family, was succeeding in school, had received a christmas gift made possible by sponsorship funds, and even over the years and through moves, had kept the photos we sent.

 

 

Though his is most personal to me, John’s is not the only impacting story in the three days on the ground here. I watched Yawah’s delight as i read a letter to her from her sponsor. I saw Rugi sit in front of her village and weep as she told her story and spoke of the difference sponsorship and her relationship with Angie has made in her life.

 

 

Since John read it to me in his little room, these are the words, the prayer in my heart for John and Rugi and Yawah and the thousands of children like them who have seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their path, yet a light of hope in their eyes.

 

 

Guard their life and rescue them; do not let them be put to shame, for they take refuge in you. May integrity and uprightness protect them, because their hope, OUR hope, LORD, is in you. Deliver your children, O God, from all their troubles!

You guys, I came with my doubts and plenty of hard questions. I don’t have them all answered. But I can say this. World Hope International often says “Child sponsorship works”, and I’ve seen it to be true. This month, WHI has a goal of choosing love every day for the month of love. 29 new sponsors choosing to change the story for a child, one for every day of February. I would love for you to join. To be one. Choose one. Choose love. If you’re ready to jump in, or just want to see more of what World Hope is about, visit here.

 

Good night from the hot and lovely Sierra Leone, ~C

To Sierra Leone

Here’s a riddle: what do hand sanitizer, GoGo SqueeZ applesauce, and Lorazapam all have in common?Answer: A jet engine.

 

  In the crazy adventure that is life, I’ve been graciously invited to visit Sierra Leone and meet John, the boy we’ve sponsored for many years.

 

I’ll be traveling on February 8th with my friend Angie, the Education Program Manager for World Hope International. In addition to meeting John and visiting his community and other kids in his school, I’ll get an up-close look at child sponsorship from the receiving side. And I’ll be sharing the stories with you.

  I am all kinds of feelings about this opportunity.

 

Eager to meet John. I still picture kneeling to say hello to the shy, 3rd grader grin we first saw in a photo of him. In reality, I’ll probably be looking up to a high schooler, and trying to decide if a hug will embarrass him. (I’m guessing I’ll go for it anyway.)

 

Honored to be trusted with the stories of John and his community.

  Prayerful that I will be able to share their stories authentically, with dignity and respect.

  Teary at the thought of missing my girls and them missing me.

  Thankful for an opportunity to model taking action on the many prayers and conversations we have in our home about joining together with our global neighbors, learning from their stories, and using the gifts God has given us to support, empower, seek justice, and spread hope.

  Loved and full of love for my husband, who has listened to my ideas and dreams for more than a decade, and when a big opportunity arises says, “You should!” without hesitation, even when it means he has to carry extra weight at home for a week.

  Enthused to learn the details and absorb the testimonies of how child sponsorship is working, and to pass stories on to you so we can all be more informed and inspired to take action, to partner with these communities and kids.

  Full of anticipation to walk the streets and experience the sights and sounds and flavors of Seirra Leone.

  And fill in the blank with any antonym of “eager” for my feelings about the plane ride. (Oh, NOW you get the riddle?? Hey, riddle-writing isn’t as easy as it looks, folks.)

 

 

 

I’m really looking forward to sharing this whole experience with you; to give you a virtual tour of Seirra Leone, introduce you to some incredible people, and present you with real stories and real opportunities to be involved. There is a place for you in this story! For now, you can follow me on Instagram to see live posts of the trip, keep an eye on the blog for updates, and check out World Hope International to see more of the great work they’re doing (and follow them on the Insta too!).